After the death of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, images of heavily militarised police became ubiquitous in the media. For a state body supposed to “protect and serve” its citizens, police the world over are increasingly being trained to fight against them.
‘Violent’ was the repeated buzzword used to describe the scenes of civil unrest in the US city of Minneapolis in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers. As the news spread across the country, the sheer scale and force of the response once more exposed an arm of American society exhausted by oppression. African Americans, who have faced structural racism and police violence since the inception of their nation, took to the streets of major cities in every state in protest. That some of those protests turned violent should be of no surprise to anyone familiar with the historic treatment of protestors by police forces.
The police response, however, was unlike anything seen before on US soil and spoke of a worrying new phenomenon of increasingly militarised policing. Hordes of officers — armed to the teeth, in vehicles and heavy body armour designed for war zones — were deployed to quell the protests and enforce curfews. As the US National Guard was called in to help contain the protests, their lighter body armour and M16s stood in stark contrast to the sophistication of the futuristic automatic rifles wielded by the police. The men and women trained for real war looked surprisingly ill equipped.
In the past 20 years, police forces across the world have increasingly armed themselves with weapons designed for war zones. In some instances, the equipment at their disposal is banned for use in combat — the tear gas used to clear protestors obstructing President Trump’s path to St John’s Episcopal Church is prohibited in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Earlier in 2020, before the world shut down over the Covid-19 pandemic, another desperate and extraordinary situation was taking place across the Atlantic. At Evros, on the Greek–Turkish border, stranded Syrian refugees were goaded by the Turkish government to cross into Greece and onto European soil, in direct violation of a 2016 deal between Turkey and the EU. Those refugees that dared to make the crossing were met with the same show of force as the Black Lives Matter protestors in the US: repelled by tear gas and beatings, some say even with live fire. Their attackers were working as part of a joint operation between the Greek police and the country’s armed forces.
On the ground, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two. The Greek army and police have been holding joint training exercises since at least 2011, when the two engaged in a day-long primer in “crowd control”. These unorthodox methods are multiplying and the deployment of special police task forces, armed like tactical armies, is becoming normalised.
“The result of this cross-pollination of forces is what we now know as SWAT, an innovation tied inextricably with the fear of Black uprisings, and a key weapon in the US war on drugs.”
The story of police militarisation in the US — the first Western police force to adopt such an approach — begins in 1965 LA, at the so-called Watts riots. At a time when the relationship between the LAPD and the Black community was at a breaking point, the violent arrest of a Black man, Marquette Frye, by a white officer led to six days of clashes between the black community and the police and $40m in damages. At least 4,000 people were arrested. By the third night of the riots, to take control of the situation, 13,500 California National Guard troops were placed under the command of the LAPD and the framework for a militarised response to crowd control started taking shape.
“We had no idea how to deal with this,” admitted Daryl Gates, chief of the LAPD at the time. “We were constantly ducking bottles, rocks, knives, and Molotov cocktails … Guns were pointed out of second-story windows, random shots fired … It was random chaos, in small disparate patches. We did not know how to handle guerrilla warfare.”
In response, Gates turned to the US military for advice, whose experiences in Vietnam had prepared them for guerilla tactics. The result of this cross-pollination of forces is what we now know as Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT), an innovation tied inextricably with the fear of Black uprisings, and a key weapon in the US war on drugs, whose main victims on home ground are predominantly African Americans.
Coupled with a radical redefinition of the rights of civilians to the privacy of their own homes — that allowed police to simply enter suspects’ homes with the flimsiest of pretexts — SWAT procedures turned the war on drugs into a violent conflict carried out in private residences all across America. The recent outcomes of this process are illustrated in a report by the American Civil Liberties Union titled War Comes Home: “During a ‘no knock’ SWAT raid, an officer threw a flashbang grenade into the room where the Phonesavanh family was sleeping. It landed, and exploded, inside Baby Bou Bou’s crib. Officers were searching for a relative suspected of selling a small amount of drugs. Neither the suspect nor any drugs were found in the home. At the time this report was published — three weeks after the raid — Baby Bou Bou was still in a medically-induced coma.”
Similarly, a Syrian refugee was killed during the incidents in Evros having been hit in the neck by a non-lethal projectile discharged by Greek police. While the Greek government vehemently denies responsibility and has dubbed reports on this incident “fake news,” several independent investigations have confirmed the veracity of the case and the clear flaws of the “non-lethal” methods deployed by police.
Since Watts, police forces globally have dealt with civil unrest in an increasingly militarised fashion. But since Septermber 11, police spending on combat equipment and training has been unprecedented. The Washington Post journalist Radley Balko recorded this in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: “KEENE, N.H.: the quaint town of 23,000 — home to just two murders since 1999 — had just accepted a $285,933 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a Bearcat, an eight-tonne armored personnel vehicle made by Lenco Industries, Inc. Since the September 11 attacks, Homeland Security has been handing out anti-terrorism grants like parade candy, giving cities and towns across the country funds to buy military-grade armored vehicles, guns, armor, aircraft, and other equipment.”
The expense of these programmes, as Balko notes, is staggering. “At the end of 2011, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) found that Homeland Security had given out at least $34 billion in anti-terror grants since its inception, many of which went to such unlikely terrorism targets as Fargo, N.D.; Fon du Lac, Wisc.; and Canyon County, Idaho. Defense contractors that had previously served the Pentagon exclusively, CIR reported, have since shifted their focus to police departments, hoping to tap a new homeland security market bounty expected to be worth $19 billion annually by 2014. Police agencies have a whole new source of funding for their war gear.”
Objections have been raised to these tactics and equipment within US administrations. But when Michael P. Botticelli — who served as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) from March 2014 until the end of the Obama administration — suggested that the whole programme should be wound down, he was fiercely challenged. “On the front lines,” Balko notes, “the administration was arguing in court that there’s nothing unreasonable about government agents pointing guns at the heads of children whose parents are suspected of drug crimes — and that even when said gun-pointing is done in the service of a mistaken raid, the agents should be shielded from any liability.”
“Police forces across the world increasingly arm themselves with weapons designed for war zones. In some instances, the equipment at their disposal is banned for use in combat.”
Of course, a more violent policing demands more violent training. Dave Grossman, a retired US army officer and now a professor of psychology, has written several books around police training and the psychological methods needed in order to train officers to be able to kill. He has delivered seminars to police officers in every US state that carry the tone that we’re seeing manifest in recent police actions: “Violence is your realm. You have to master it.” he says to a crowd of officers in the 2016 documentary Do Not Resist. He goes on: “I am convinced from a lifetime of study, if you fully prepare yourself, in most cases killing is just not that big of a deal.”
In fact, says Grossman, taking a life can dramatically increase libido, and officers who kill in the line of duty will return home and “have the best sex of your lives”.
Thankfully, killing is still the exception and not the rule, but a multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up to service the appetites of police forces for non-lethal violence. Companies manufacturing body armour, tasers, tear gas and plastic bullets now make up a global market that is projected to be worth over $10.3bn by 2025. But even this equipment is having an impact on the psyche of law enforcement officers.
Research carried out in 2004 at Wichita State University, found that “soldier-like clothing can truly affect the way police carry out their jobs. […] Soldiers at war operate under a code of domination, not service […]. When police organisations look and act like soldiers, a military mindset is created that declares war on the American public. In this mentality, the American streets become the ‘front’ and American citizens exist as ‘enemy combatants.’”
From Ferguson in 2014 to Minneapolis today, activists, journalists and observers report that officers carrying out their duties in heavy armour are dehumanising and seek submission from protestors, rather than to restore order and come to a resolution. This aura of menace is no accident: as the recent Black Lives Matter protests erupted, President Donald Trump phoned state governors and asked them to “dominate the protests” — causing the shares of law enforcement supplier Axon Enterprise to spike by more than 9%.
As oppressive policing grows alongside a dramatic democratic deficit and debilitating financial inequality, citizens are increasingly exempt from the notion of safety as a social right. Those without the rights of citizens are even more at risk — this new paradigm is also expanding in the way nations keep people out.
In his book Border Merchants, investigative journalist Apostolis Fotiadis describes how Greece became increasingly interested in the purchase of unmanned aircrafts to patrol the Greek skies and fortify its borders against refugees crossing from Turkey. “You see politicians who don’t doubt at all that the solution will be provided in terms of security and militarisation,” he said in a 2015 interview, “and justify it with arguments around protecting people that might drown, or with the war against traffickers.”
Such technologies and the legislation that facilitates them are often subject to function creep. In the US, we have seen predator drones used to spy on protestors in Minnesota. In Spain, anarchists have been convicted using counter-terrorism legislation having committed no crime other than posting on Facebook. In Europe as a whole, funding has been made available for the development of similar aircrafts to patrol internal borders, including that between Northern Ireland and the Republic, a controversial move which the local communities oppose and which threatens to bring tensions to the fragile truce there.
All of which contributes to an increasingly dystopian present: drones carrying out surveillance on civilians, heavily armoured police beating down protestors, tear gas fired into crowds of people like bug spray. While these methods only affect “fringe” elements of society there is little meaningful opposition from mainstream opinion. But to quote a somewhat unlikely source (the TV show Battlestar Galactica, a space-opera which beautifully paralleled these societal shifts as they took off in post-September 11 America): “There’s a reason you separate the military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”